Tuesday, September 06, 2011

First Communion

He stroked his beard absently, and looked around the room.  It was small, and dimly lit, but full with people and warm with light.  Several sat at the table with him, several more were seated about the floor, others gathered against the walls.  Conversations were quiet, with some muted bursts of amiable laughter.  There was some sniffling, too.  A crooked smile, a hand on a shoulder, an embrace.  He felt the ease of camaraderie and companionship playing in tension with a feeling of expectation.  This was not just a casual gathering of friends.  The future was waiting outside their door, and no one was sure how to greet him.  Great pain had come, had taught them to expect more of it, but great hope had been born, too, and the future was a captivating and shivering thought.  He thought of Moses, and of Joshua.  Like the second great leader of the People of God, these people were waiting for his first charge of leadership.  He sighed at the thought.

He knew almost everyone there by name, and as he scanned the room a hundred stories came to mind.  Simon, the leper, or rather, the former leper, stood locked in an embrace with a former blind man; laughing or crying, he couldn’t tell.  Either way, it was a good hug.  He could see in his memory Jesus kissing the blind man’s eyes, holding the leper’s hands.  He recalled the way they looked at him, the way they held on to him.  He prayed for so pure a devotion as theirs.

In the corner stood one of several Marys.  She smiled casually, incidentally, with the person with whom she was conversing, and he felt a sweet stab of joy in his throat.  Her eyes were so clear, so full to the brim with life.  He remembered those eyes when he had first seen them, shadowed with demons and shame.  That the woman he first met, such a short time ago, was the same woman he saw now was an overwhelming and joyous incongruity.  She still bore her scars, still walked with a metaphorical limp — but she walked, and sometimes danced.

She was speaking with a round, stout man who looked thoughtfully at the lady standing above him.  Peter tended to forget just how short Zacchaeus really was.  The little man they had found tree climbing had become a close friend of the band of disciples, offering food, lodging, and an exuberant hospitality.  Of course, there were times when that zeal was quite tiring to the people around him.  Earlier that very evening, Peter had sent him on an errand for bread just to have a moment of peace.  But it was good and right that the tax collector stood with them now.  He seemed taller than the man they’d seen in the tree.

Another tax collector sat two places down from him, on his left.  When Matthew asked him to pass the salt, Peter felt a tide rise in his eyes.  He laughed inside at the memory of the drunk he’d first met.  He remembered the tax collector, desperately lonely and physically sick, leaving his booth, dribbling vomit down his beard, crying in the arms of Jesus.  This, of course, brought to mind his own tearful, blubbering, first encounter with his friend and saviour, and as tears fell, he passed the salt.  Matthew smiled.  He knew what Peter's eyes said.

He felt a familiar hand on his shoulder.  Andrew sat by his left side.  Andrew, the brother who had cared for him and stood by him more closely than anyone.  He had felt that same hand on his shoulder on many a drunken night.  He’d felt it at the death of his wife.  He’d felt it the day he met Jesus.  He’d felt it in four hundred and ninety different moments of unexpected grace.  He placed his own hand on Andrew’s shoulder, and squeezed it tight, for it contained every ‘Thank-you’ he had never spoken.  Andrew returned the squeeze.

Two places to his right sat the poet.  John, so young and tender, had been the bravest of them all.  He, of all the men, had stood with their friend in his darkest hour.  At first, this had served only to remind Peter of his own failure: abandoning his closest friend in his time of greatest need.  But healing, again, had come to him in the embrace of the rabbi, and Peter would forever feel only the deepest admiration for the youngest apostle.  By that same strong grace, John had become the child of a strange adoption to the woman who sat between them.

He watched her eyes.  They, like his own, seemed to be drinking in the sweetness of the room and the memory of grace, and the soft lines of age on the crests of her cheeks were like beams of moonlight.  If anyone there could claim to have deserved Jesus’s grace, it was she, but she never behaved that way.  She never asserted herself on him.  She simply knew him best, as only a mom could, and in that had a curious authority.  Those graceful eyes met Peter’s, and they so looked like her son’s that he felt a strange kind of electricity.  He had never noticed till now how alike their eyes were, and he felt as if his friend’s strength and vigorous grace were flowing to him now.  And grace, for years now, made the fisherman weep.

Our deepest joys are strange things, and they behave much the same as our deepest griefs.  They come upon us unexpectedly, washing over us in unstoppable waves, turning and tossing us until their work is complete, and we are left panting on the sand, the taste of salt on our lips, wondering what just happened.  Peter felt this joy overtake him in this way, and he had much experience in the matters of waves.  He sat now as a man turned up on the shore, and as he looked down he saw with new eyes.  He looked at what lay on the table before him, and smiled at Zacchaeus’s bread.  He remembered when his brother brought a small boy’s lunch to Jesus, and how it fed thousands.  He remembered something his friend had told the crowds about bread after that miracle.  And he knew his first his first charge.  He cleared his throat, and spoke to the room full of friends.

“That last night,” he said, “we shared a meal together, just like we’ve done here.”  The room was quiet, and listening.  “That was the night Judas betrayed him, the night I abandoned him, the night he washed our feet.  It was the night we sang and prayed together, too.  And it was the night he gave himself to us.”

Peter’s fingers hovered over the round, flat loaf that lay before him.  He uttered a silent prayer.  O God, make me clean.  Make me worthy.  He took it up in his calloused hands, and continued.  “I remember him taking bread, breaking it, and giving it to his friends.”

The bread was soft, and it broke apart easily while he spoke.  He began to hand the pieces to his right and to his left.  Each hand took a piece of the bread, and held it in its palm, waiting.  “He took that bread, and lifted it up to heaven, like this.”  His voice became low, and holy.  “He said, ‘Take this, each one of you, and eat it.  This is my body, which will be given up for you.’ “

Peter stared at the piece in his hands, and whispered.  He is with us.  He’s here.  He paused in the silence, and a sea of eyes stared at the Bread which they held in their hands.  He smiled.  “Eat.”

He placed it on his tongue and closed his eyes.  He swallowed hard as tears fell freely.  He opened his eyes and stared for a moment at the cup of wine that sat before him.  He remembered the wedding.  He remembered the water.  He remembered a lamb.  He raised the cup and spoke.  “He gave us wine, too. ‘This is the cup of my blood,’ he said, ‘the blood of the new and eternal covenant.  It will be shed for you, for all, so that sins may be forgiven.  Do this to remember me.’ “

He put the cup to his lips, and drank.  The flavour swirled upon his tongue, and he tasted its full range, its sweetness and bitterness.  He drank deeply, and it warmed his throat as he drank.  He realized a small trail was running from the corner of his mouth into his beard.  He wiped it with the back of his hand, and kissed it away.  He turned to the woman on his right, and held the cup before her.  “This is the blood of Christ,” he said.

“May it be as you say,” she replied, and drank.  She passed the cup to her right.

He looked once more around the room, from Simon to Matthew, from Zacchaeus to John, from Mary to Mary, as each one drank.  He saw stories of sacrifice, of bodies broken, of blood poured out; each story foretelling and remembering and singing of this One Story.   They were the soil, broken and tilled for a harvest of an everlasting friendship.  They were the fruit of this humble and holy vine, crushed and consumed for the warming of the heart and the gladdening of the mind.  They were the offering, poured out on the altar of God.  He prayed in silence the greatest of all prayers:  Thank-you.

How good it is, how pleasant, where the people dwell as one!
Like precious ointment on the head, running down the beard,
Upon the beard of Aaron, upon the collar of his robe.
Like the dew of Hermon coming down upon the mountains of Zion.
There the Lord has lavished blessings, 
Life forevermore.